Those of us who live in the Idaho Panhandle refer to this area as North Idaho, as if it were a separate state. We live in the Pacific Time Zone, get our news from Spokane, and are more likely to follow Gonzaga basketball than Boise State football. We can drive to the capitals of nearby states more easily, and on better highways, than we can get to Boise. Sandpoint is 323 miles from Helena, 394 miles from Olympia, and 421 miles from Boise. Sometimes we feel worlds apart.

North Idaho has strong ties to eastern Washington, and together we form a region known as the Inland Northwest. The boundaries often expand to include western Montana and southern British Columbia. The title of the upcoming National Preservation Conference, “Beyond Boundaries,” seems very appropriate for those of us who live in this region since we travel easily across borders. Eastern Washington residents come to Idaho to ski while we go to the city for a concert. Tribal stores in Idaho sell cheap cigarettes; Trader Joe's in Spokane has Two-Buck Chuck. Kids travel throughout the region, including into Canada, to play soccer. But we rarely make it farther south than Moscow just as Treasure Valley residents almost never travel north of McCall.

The borders in our region, as well as the shapes of Idaho and Washington, might have been much different if President Grover Cleveland had just signed his name one more time in 1887. What is now the state of Idaho was once part of both Oregon and Washington territories. On March 3, 1863, Idaho became a separate territory but it was a huge and ungainly one. Bigger than the state of Texas, it included all of what is now Montana and most of Wyoming as well. This lasted just over a year before the establishment of Montana Territory brought Idaho closer to its current size by May 1864.

Once rid of the Montana miners, southern Idaho politicians moved to consolidate their power. The center of population in the newly-reduced Idaho had shifted south to the Boise Basin mines, making the temporary capital at Lewiston no longer central. Despite vigorous protests from North Idaho legislators, southern lawmakers voted on December 24, 1864, to permanently move the capital to Boise. Outraged northerners vowed to fight, contending the move was illegal, but subsequent court decisions validated Boise as the capital. Legal or not, these actions sowed the seeds of almost twenty-five years of North-South sectional disputes before Idaho finally achieved statehood in 1890.

One of the first proposals, approved by the Territorial Legislature in January 1866, called for the formation of a new territory named Columbia, made out of northern Idaho, eastern Washington, and western Montana. The Montana folks objected to this plan, however, which led to a revised one, minus Montana, that was sent to Congress in December of that year. Variations on this idea continued for more than twenty years.

Idaho politicians generally favored division of the territory and sent supporting documents to Congress to bolster their position. More than once during the 1880s the Territorial Legislature asked to have North Idaho joined to Washington when that territory was admitted to the Union. To justify this request, legislators noted the steep range of mountains dividing the state and the difficulty of travel between north and south, especially during the winter. “Politically the two sections are united,” stated a memorial that rings true today, “but socially, commercially and geographically they never can be.” John Hailey, Idaho's delegate to Congress, supported the division. The northerners had “been very troublesome,” he noted. “I hope the bill will pass to annex them to Washington Territory, because we can get along very well without them.”

Portion of Council Joint Memorial Number 2,
from Twelfth Session of the Idaho Territorial Legislature,
January-February 1883.

After numerous attempts to pass legislation in Congress, a bill to divide the territory finally made it through both the House and Senate in March 1887. While it awaited the president’s signature, however, Territorial Governor Edward A. Stevenson telegraphed President Grover Cleveland to express opposition to division in any form. He feared that if the bill passed, Nevada would move to annex the southern part of the territory. In the end, Cleveland postponed his decision and the billed died with a pocket veto.

Something changed at this point. Although five separate bills were soon introduced in Congress to divide Idaho in various ways, citizens of the territory began to openly protest such attempts. Politicians directed their energy instead toward writing legislation to admit Idaho to the Union, with its ungainly but now familiar shape. HR 4562 passed the Senate on July 1, 1890 and was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison on July 3, making Idaho the forty-third state.

Since that time, we in the north have been pretty quiet about separating from the rest of the state. Periodically, however, another proposal pops up that rekindles the sectional divide. Most are momentary protests, but a much stronger one, widely supported, almost led to the secession of the ten northern counties in 1921. Similar threats arose again in 1939, but once again the state remained united. Secessionist expressions now are mostly just in fun. For instance, Bonner County celebrated the end of the state centennial in 1990 with a secessionist theme and a slogan of “100 Years Is Enough.” That was a joke, wasn't it?


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